Travelling alone can seem daunting from the comfort of home. What happens if you get stranded somewhere? Can you go out at night solo? Won’t it feel weird to eat in a restaurant alone? All these worries and more (Will I get attacked by bandits? Or my car stuck in a ditch?) plagued me before my first solo trip – my first research trip for Rough Guides, in 2003. My fears quickly evaporated, and now solo travel is a huge bonus of my job. Here’s how to make the most of your first solitary outing.
Know your strengths
Are you a sociable person who wants to be in the middle of everything? You might go crazy if you can’t communicate, so head for where you speak the language. Or, barring that go somewhere with very few tourists. A gregarious friend of mine travelled in Indonesia last year and loved it – foreigners were so rare on Java that schoolgirls stopped him in the street to have their picture taken with him. “I felt like a rock star”, he said. If you’re more of an introvert and prefer to observe a culture, forget the language barrier and go for passive entertainment. Vibrant cities are perfect for this, especially ones with good café cultures. Paris is classic, but other former French colonies, such as Lebanon and Vietnam, are also great for sitting and people-watching, all for the price of a coffee.
Look for room rentals in an apartment, which gives an automatic connection with residents. Even if your landlord doesn’t take you out on the town, you’ll at least scoop up a few local tips. Try online bulletin boards in your destination, room-rental sites like http://www.airbnb.com and crash-pad networks like Couchsurfing. Bonus: as a solo traveller, you have tons of options to choose from. Hostels are of course ready-made for solo travellers, but you might wind up spending more time with other tourists than with locals.
Play the oddball card
In much of the world, solo travellers – and single people in general – are seen as strange, even a bit unfortunate. “Pobre solita!” (“You poor lonely girl!”) people have said to me in Mexico, where everyone travels with their extended families. But because I was alone, I’ve also gotten generous invitations to people’s houses for dinner. So don’t feel bad – just roll with it, and show off your free-agent status by offering to take a family’s photo at a big sight, for instance, or sitting near a chatty gang at a bar.
Just say no
Sometimes, especially in more hospitable and foreigner-fascinated cultures like Egypt, I’ve found the attention I get as a solo traveller to be a little intense. Learn how to say “no, thank you” in the local language, as well as “absolutely not” – plus the local nonverbal gesture for no, which is often more effective than both. Also have local help numbers, such as the tourist police, programmed in your phone. You’ll probably never need them, but just knowing you have them can give you the confidence to deal with awkward situations.
Pack a book
A good book, a magazine or even just postcards to write or your travel journal to jot in – are all legitimate activities at a bar or restaurant if you get to feeling a little bored/lonely/exposed, so carry one of them with you at all times. And as a last resort there’s always fiddling with your smartphone.
Making photography a mission, even if it’s just little odd details you notice about a place, gives a little structure to your day. And you will notice more odd details, because you’ll have the time and attention to look around. Your friends at home will appreciate your perspective and the story that comes with it.
You might be tempted to live on fast food, just to avoid awkward restaurant situations. Don’t. In fact, fancy establishments are fantastic places to dine alone. Waiters are happy to help solo diners who smile and say, “I made a special trip just to eat here. What do you recommend?” Social folks might want to eat at the bar, but there’s no shame in taking a table for two.
Get an early start
If the thought of bar-hopping alone makes you die a little inside, just recast your day. Wake up early, enjoy a leisurely breakfast (when all the good stuff is still available on the hotel buffet) and head out for parks, museums and other daytime-only activities. If you pack your day full enough, you’ll be ready for bed by 9pm.
Find your people
Use Facebook and Twitter to ask for connections where you’re travelling. Offer to take local friends of friends out for dinner, and you’ll be surprised how many people take you up on it – everyone likes to be tour guide for a night. Also seek out your interests in your destination – the fan club for the local football team, say, or the chess association. That same gregarious friend who loved Indonesia also hooked up with an improv-comedy group in Kuala Lumpur. Hilarity ensued.
Revel in it
Even if you do get lonely, don’t lose sight of all the things you can do when you travel by yourself. Some of those perks are tiny – I’m always happy that I can double-dip my chips in the guacamole and change my mind every hour, without worrying about driving anyone crazy. But the real bonus of solo travel is much larger: pure freedom. You can take the exact trip you want, and even if you’re not quite sure yet what that might be, you’ll have a great time figuring it out.
Rough Guides Editors’ tips
Technology and terrible films
Rough Guides editor Alison Roberts hasn’t done much solo travel herself, but has taken this advice from a well-solo-travelled friend: “It’s ok to spend the occasional night in watching terrible films on your guesthouse’s TV. You wouldn’t be out every night at home, it’d be exhausting, so why would you try and do it for several months abroad? And a smartphone or tablet is a must now that there is free wi-fi almost everywhere. Among many other things it means you can book your accommodation ahead and ensure a safe pick-up at your destination. If you’re feeling lonely you can connect with home, read the news and podcasts are great for passing time on long journeys.”
Don’t bury your head in a book
Editor at Rough Guides Ellie Aldridge advises not to bury your head in a book: “It’s easy to be daunted by travelling alone. Retreating into the pages of a good novel can feel like the perfect way to escape curious stares on public transport or in restaurants, but it’s the worst thing to do. Going solo means you have a chance to really take in your surroundings, meeting locals and travellers alike along the way; be content to be by yourself, but confident enough to introduce yourself to people when you want to be sociable.”
Explore the expat hub
Neil McQuillian says: “Pretty much every major (and sometimes not so major) town and city across the world has some sort of expat or gringo hub. Go there, sit at the bar, nurse a beer and you’re likely to get chatting opportunities. That’s assuming you want company. Or head to backpacker hostel restaurant/bar areas and repeat the same. Sometimes they’re on the look out for non-guests in the evening, but if you go in the afternoon you should be alright.”
Learn a little language and protect your drinks
As a language student, Managing Editor at Rough Guides Mani Ramaswamy enjoys learning a few words and phrases before she goes travelling: “So I know how to introduce myself, start a basic conversation, order a beer, count 1–10 etc. Makes all the difference as people love to know you’re making an effort and doing your best to interact, even if you’re rubbish. I also always take my drinks to the toilet with me in case anyone spikes them. A bit sinister but it does happen so best to be careful!”